The Steven Brill–New Republic Feud
Earlier this year, there was a minor kerfuffle when the New Republic, which had commissioned a lengthy piece by journalist Steven Brill on health-care costs for its first cover story after its relaunch, bumped Brill in favor of running an interview with President Obama. As a result, Brill took his roughly twenty-five-thousand-word opus to Time instead. Today, the New York Times reports that Brill is taking somewhat of a victory lap, as his piece proved a big hit both in terms of sales and online presence:
The 25,000-word article that Steven Brill wrote for the magazine’s March 4 issue appears to be on course to become its best-selling cover in nearly two years. Ali Zelenko, a Time spokeswoman, said the issue sold more than double the typical number of copies. . . . The article was shared 100 times more often on social media than the average Time article in 2013, and the #BitterPill hashtag was mentioned nearly 6,000 times on Twitter.
At Politico, Dylan Byers argues that this means TNR made a mistake. As he says, “Brill's piece was far more substantive, far more impactful and far more daring,” and running it in their first issue “would have made a bold statement.” In contrast, he writes, the Obama interview “made no lasting impact on any national debate, save for a few days discussion of Obama's skeet-shooting habits.”
This is a fair critique, and Brill’s piece is a must-read. But it’s also easy to see the other side of the argument. We only have one president, and he doesn’t give that many print interviews. And from a business point of view, the choice seems to have paid off; as new TNR owner and editor-in-chief Chris Hughes told New York magazine, the relaunch issue “sold at record rates on the newsstand — over five times larger than any issue in the past decade.”
Indeed, the bigger problem seems to be not that the magazine bumped Brill for Obama but that, once they got Obama to sit down for an interview, they proceeded to ask him a series of mostly anodyne questions. Consider the first two questions, asked by Hughes:
Can you tell us a little bit about how you've gone about intellectually preparing for your second term as president?
Have you looked back in history, particularly at the second terms of other presidents, for inspiration?
Is it any surprise that these questions elicited boring, predictable responses?
Conversely, consider what might have happened if TNR had used the interview to really probe into the substance of Obama’s foreign and domestic policies. Imagine if they had asked in-depth questions about the future direction of the drone war, or the pace of the drawdown in Afghanistan. Would the responses have been any more newsworthy? Maybe not. But at any rate, to use Byers’s words, it would have made a statement.